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New top Enviros in Washington: The Outgoing

January 17, 2013
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With the announcement yesterday that Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar is planning on leaving his cabinet position in March, we enviros find ourselves in the position of seeing the departure of all three cabinet (and near cabinet) level positions that concern themselves with conservation and the environment.  Not only is Salazar riding his pony into the sunset (and in the case of ten-gallon Ken that may be a literal description of his last day), but neither Energy Secretary Steven Chu and head of the Environmental Protection Agency Lisa Jackson are sticking around for President Obama’s second term leaving some real holes in the administration’s environmental team, such that they ever really acted like one.

Now that all three are on their way out, it’s as good a time as any to look at their legacy which, in a large way, will define the environmental legacy of their boss, President Obama.

Steven_Chu_official_DOE_portraitSteven Chu: Few Cabinet officials were appointed with as much fanfare as Steven Chu, who held the impressive distinction of being the first current Nobel laureate to hold a Cabinet office.  Big things were certainly expected of him, but as with so many ambitious goals presented by this Administration on the campaign trail, expectations for many of Chu’s initiatives had to be significantly managed in the face of unprecedented political blowback from the opposition.  It seemed that Chu spent as much time called before Congress forced to explain simple scientific principles to elected officials who were incredulous at best and proudly ignorant at worst, and always attempting to make political hay by trafficking in green energy inspired conspiracy theories. For a scientist used to working with the best and brightest, that had to be incredibly frustrating.

All that said, the defining issue of Chu’s tenure is likely to be his attempt, however hopeless, of attempting to reel in the fracking industry as the spreads like a cancer across the country.  The Department of Energy made some noise about regulating the industry in 2011 but natural gas long been considered something of a panacea for weaning the nation off of fossil fuel dependencies and some prominent green energy advocates, Chu included, see natural gas as essential for a future where “green” energy sources like hydrogen fuel cells are feasible.  Of course, those advocates for hydrogen fuel cell technology probably didn’t see fracking as essential to that dream.

In any case, all Chu has done to this end is create a committee, one with no powers of oversight or regulatory role. So there’s that.

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480px-Lisa_P._Jackson_official_portraitLisa Jackson:If Steven Chu was merely the victim of character assassination, what, then, could be said about former EPA head Lisa Jackson?  Jackson was probably the most effective of the three departing bureaucrats.  During her time at the Environmental Protection Agency, Jackson pushed through some of the most stringent air and water pollution rules in decades and consistently pressed forward on the issue of climate change in an administration that rarely even talked about it.  For that, Jackson was public enemy number one amongst those elected officials heavily indebted to the fossil fuel industry. Republican candidate for the presidency Mitt Romney actually called for her resignation and she’s been accused for “waging a war on coal” for her work regulating mercury emissions.

Her greatest bird-related accomplishment was undoubtedly the her overhaul of how the agency reviews the impact of mountaintop removal mines in Appalachia.  The EPA revoked several permits when they determined that the dumping of slag in the river valleys would cause “significant damage to the water quality and the environment”, which, you know, obviously.  She was not afraid to make and defend unpopular decisions, even when she didn’t have the support of the White House, as evidenced by the EPA’s suggested smog pollution rule that was vetoed by the president.

Additionally, Jackson was a strong voice against the Keystone XL pipeline in the administration and there’s some speculation that her departure had to do with the fact that the Obama Administration has already decided to approve the pipeline – effectively game over on the fight to mitigate the worst effect of climate change (that is not hyperbole, but the opinion of many well-respected climate scientists) – and she left out of principle rather that be forced to defend the administration’s actions.  I can only hope that that is not the case, as it’s just as reasonable to suggest that Jackson was simply tired of being a lightning rod.

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458px-Ken_Salazar_official_DOI_portraitKen Salazar: Not a lot has been made of Salazar during his time at Interior.  Partly because it’s hardly the sexiest if the Cabinet positions, even if I do fine public lands policy to be interesting, and partly because Salazar did so little to rock the boat in President Obama’s first term.  Obama’s open lands policy has been particularly disappointing, as he’s had to focus on a number of other, arguably more important fires, and left Interior to slowly chip away at our legacy of public lands in an attempt to increase domestic fossil fuel production.

Salazar’s one act in the public came in the response to the Deepwater Horizon disaster, when he placed a moratorium on new drilling in the Gulf of Mexico, a moratorium that was eventually lifted with little to nothing added in the way of increased regulation.  Salazar’s Interior Department also approved the leases for offshore drilling in Alaska, included drilling projects that have gone almost comically pear-shaped in recent weeks.

So far as his duties to increase acreage of public lands, he does deserve credit, opening 7 new national parks and 10 National Wildlife Refuges, but his decision to delist Gray Wolves in the northern Rockies led to unprecedented massacre of wolves in Idaho and Montana.  For a bureaucrat who claimed to want to make science-based policy decisions that was a low spot in his tenure.  Additionally, Obama’s first term saw the fewest species listed for protection under the Endangered Species Act since the act was enacted.  It’s hard to comprehend that an Obama Administration could be less progressive than George W Bush’s coke-addled, sex partying Interior department, but the numbers don’t lie, and the decision not to consider the effects of Carbon Dioxide on the long-term survival of species (Polar Bear, anyone?) was another black eye.

Salazar’s time was disappointing, true, and while I don’t particularly expect anyone better replacing him, I’ll still be glad to see the back of him.

More on this topic when the newest cabinet appointees are announced.

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